“Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” at London’s British Museum is an exhibition that immerses you in the ancient world.
While it is packed with beautiful frescoes, mosaics, sculptures and ancient ornaments, it is the everyday objects and the remnants of inhabitants themselves that are most evocative.
Of course, the perpetual fascination of the two ancient cities buried by a volcanic eruption in 79 A.D. is the astonishing way in which everyday artifacts, intimate possessions, and even people and domestic animals were preserved by their destruction.
Quite a few inhabitants of Pompeii are on show -- or rather, plaster casts of their bodies are. At Herculaneum death came in a so-called pyroclastic flow of super-heated gas and rock travelling at 70 miles an hour. This had the effect of turning wooden objects into charcoal (several pieces of carbonized furniture are included).
At Pompeii there was a lethal shower of ash, pumice and small stones that suffocated its victims.
In the 19th century, archaeologists discovered that by pouring plaster into the holes left by bodies they could obtain a precise 3D impression of the person, or animal, in question, at the moment of death.
These resemble the work of contemporary artists such as Antony Gormley and George Segal, using the medium of life casts, except that they are far eerier and more touching. Most poignant of all perhaps is a guard dog, twisted in its death agony, still wearing its collar.
If their end was grim, life in the ancient cities looks quite jolly. The exhibition is laid out -- with brilliant success -- as a visit to a single, grand house.
You enter through a section devoted to the street, which was full of bars and fast-food joints (a pub sign, the Phoenix, and frescoes of drinkers are on show). Then you proceed into a grand house, via the atrium, or entrance hall, sleeping area, garden, dining room, kitchen and lavatory.
Two conclusions leap out.
One is that these two towns were simply packed with art. There is even a fresco from a toilet, warning the user to be beware of bad luck while crouched in a vulnerable position.
A wealth of ancient bronze sculpture was found in the garden of just one house, the Villa of the Papyri, at Herculaneum. It fills rooms of the Naples Museum, and several pieces are on loan to the exhibition, among them a grave Grecian maiden and a prancing piglet.
The other overriding impression is how these Romans enjoyed life without inhibitions. Their favorite pursuits clearly included drinking, eating, gardening and sex.
The most stunning single exhibit is a complete garden room, frescoed with plants, birds, garlands and flowers. It presents a delightful image of the Italian dolce vita.
A startlingly uninhibited attitude to the depiction of sexual activity, even by 21st-century standards, is suggested by another garden statue: a nicely carved marble sculpture graphically representing the god Pan having intercourse with a goat. This was possibly an ancient idea of humor.
The innumerable phalluses -- painted, carved and cast in metal on every conceivable object, including a set of phallic wind chimes -- were kept as good-luck charms.
In lots of ways the inhabitants were just like many people today: drunken, greedy, obsessed with sex and showing off smart houses, fixtures and fittings.
However close they seem -- and this exhibition brings them very near -- in some ways we’ll never quite understand the Romans. Those wind chimes, for example, are deeply weird.
“Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum,” sponsored by Goldman Sachs, is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG, from March 28 through Sept. 29. Information: http://www.britishmuseum.org or +44-20-7323-8299.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Mark Beech on music, Stephanie Green’s Scene Last Night and Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater.